They take their “get out of jail free” cards seriously here.
When the historic Ohio State Reformatory closed here in 1990 after 94 years in operation, officials wanted to tear it down. Those vast expanses of green lawn were destined to become parking lots for the two new, modern prison facilities nearby.
But razing the massive stone structure — the back walls alone were 25 feet tall, 6 feet thick at the base and up to 250 yards long — was a task akin to bringing down Tyrannosaurus Rex with a peashooter.
“You can imagine how much dynamite would be needed,” said Ron Puff, a local Baptist minister who appears to know every stone and windowpane, every inch of the rust and peeling paint covering the massive cell blocks.
Instead, the former reformatory for delinquent young men that later became a maximum security prison got a reprieve. Through some savvy marketing by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, it drew 80,000 visitors last year for extreme ghost hunts, a huge Halloween festival and murder mystery dinners. But they also make the visit to see the site of the 1993 filming for what’s considered by some as one of the greatest movies of all time — “The Shawshank Redemption.” These visits brought in $10 million in tourism to the Mansfield area last year.
The society next weekend will mark the movie’s 20th anniversary with the kickoff of a 13-stop bus tour of filming sites, re-creations, appearances by some cast members and locals who were extras, as well as a 1940s-themed cocktail party in the nicely renovated guard room at the reformatory.
Slowly, thanks to the efforts of the society, parts of the buildings are scheduled to be heated for the first time in decades, rooms cleaned and decorated. Huge cathedral windows providing the only natural light along the multitiered cell blocks are being replaced. Stained glass window panels damaged by the elements or vandalism have been removed for repair.
It will be a long, long time before work is finished — if ever, given the size of the ongoing process. But like the protagonist of the “The Shawshank Redemption,” those involved find hope, with an eye toward the big picture.
“It’s a 100-year project,” said Paul Smith, director of the reformatory and owner of local wine bar, The Hungry Grape. As such, he reports to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. “We set everything up to create a foundation for years to come.”
The society purchased the site for $1 in 1994, with the understanding it would revert to the state if progress were not made. All funds raised, except for staff salaries, go back into restoration.
Within the next six months, the society hopes it can keep the reformatory open to tourism year-round. But first it has to make the entire facility weather tight.
As head tour guide and chief of maintenance, Pastor Puff is always busy, organizing volunteers to clean, paint and repair.
Unlike “Shawshank” protagonist Andy Dufresne, who hounded the state legislature for years until it finally came through with funding for a prison library, the society is pretty much going it alone, although it receives the occasional grant. The $2 million raised over the past two years went into repairing the reformatory roof.
By Maria Sciullo